Biden’s speech on Afghanistan was resolute, but lacked contrition or humility

Analysis: The scenes of mayhem in Kabul have erupted in the public consciousness, and may damage the president’s reputation

It had just started raining at the White House on Monday when a group of reporters, the Guardian included, were summoned and led past a Secret Service agent, along a red carpet in a windowless corridor, up a staircase and into the elegantly appointed East Room.

It was hardly the first Joe Biden speech on this spot but it was probably the most important. The president had flown back from Camp David to address the catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan after his decision to withdraw US forces.

What followed over 19 minutes was a robust defence of the strategic reasons America was ending its longest war – but rather less detail on how the departure was executed.

While he acknowledged the scenes in Afghanistan were “gut-wrenching” and said the collapse of its government “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated”, Biden was defiant, unabashed and certain of himself. He declared that “the buck stops with me” but pointed the finger elsewhere, including at Afghans he said were unwilling to fight. There was little by way of contrition, humility or shades of grey.

It was proof again that the oldest American president ever elected still has the capacity to surprise.

Biden was widely seen as a moderate who would govern down the middle but he has proved willing to go big and bold with his vision of expansive government.

He was also seen an antidote to Donald Trump because of compassion and empathy forged in personal grief: the loss of his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash, the loss of an adult son to brain cancer. And as a former chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, not to mention a vice-president, he was expected to be the epitome of competence on the global stage.

Yet some have found Biden cold, even callous, in response to the mayhem engulfing Kabul, where the image of desperate Afghans clinging to a moving US air force jet may come to define his presidency. His insistence on Monday that “human rights must be the centre of our foreign policy” seemed jarring as his government effectively abandoned women and girls to the Taliban.

His claim that the US did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner because some did not want to leave earlier, “still hopeful for their country”, was dismissed as “patently false” by Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, according to the Axios website.

The man who promised that “America is back” after the retreat of the Trump years has embraced his predecessor’s policy of quitting Afghanistan and, critics argue, Trump’s “America first” worldview. Some US allies have suggested Biden’s decision renews questions over the United States as a dependable partner. But it was consistent with his long-held view that the war was unwinnable, a 20-year nation-building project fatally flawed from the outset.

Bill Galston, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, said: “While I was not surprised by the firmness of the speech on what he regards rightly as the central point – should we have remained indefinitely or should we have left? – I was surprised that he didn’t have more to say about the specific conditions of the exit and the challenges that it poses, at the very least for our moral standing if we don’t do right by all of the people who have worked with us and who are now in grave danger.”

The senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington added: “I was also surprised that he wasn’t a little bit more sensitive and at greater length about the sentiments of the Americans who fought there and the sentiments of the families whose children died there. It was so tough and forceful and focused that it lacked one of President Biden’s calling cards, namely emotional empathy.

“Perhaps the calculation was that unless he was firm and unambiguous and single-minded in the speech, it would provide handholds for critics, and the president and his team simply wanted to remain resolutely focused on what they believed was their high ground, ground they could defend.

Biden’s tone could be a reflection of media-driven, post-Trump politics: a combat sport in which winner takes all and any admission of failure is seen as weakness to be seized and weaponised.

Observers drew a contrast with John F Kennedy’s acknowledgment of defeat after the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

Kennedy said: “We intend to profit from this lesson. We intend to re-examine and reorient our forces of all kinds – our tactics and our institutions here in this community. We intend to intensify our efforts for a struggle in many ways more difficult than war, where disappointment will often accompany us.”

Michael Cornfield, an associate professor of political management at George Washington University, said: “Resolute. Optimistic. Forward-looking. Different media environment, to be sure; no live tweets from the Bay of Pigs. But still …”

“For all the swiftness of the Taliban takeover the disaster is not yet complete. Time remains for Biden to deliver a presidential speech that acknowledges the defeat, admits missteps, and reports on repairs under way to the national security policy process. That would include a Pentagon Papers-type autopsy of the decision-making behind the war.

“Much more than the incumbent’s political authority and reputation depends on it – yes, the soul of America is bound up in this, especially our sense of confidence and pride in our place in the world. It would be prudent as well as appropriate for the president to frame and instigate the review.”

‘His coalition appears to be intact’

Both Trump and Biden were confident they had public opinion on their side, with polls showing strong support for withdrawal from Afghanistan, an issue out of sight and out of mind for most Americans for 20 years. But now it has erupted in the public consciousness, there could be a shift.

A Politico-Morning Consult poll on Monday found that 49% of registered voters supported the withdrawal from Afghanistan, down from 69% in April, when Biden first announced the exit plan.

John Zogby, a senior partner at John Zogby Strategies, found that 49% of American adults support Biden’s decision to leave the country while 37% oppose it. There was a partisan split, with 73% of Democrats backing the move and just 26% of Republicans.

Zogby wrote: “In the first full day following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban … Joe Biden seems to have survived a major hit in public opinion. His winning coalition of 2020 appears to be intact and his decision to take ownership of a most difficult decision appears to have acted like a tourniquet to stop any bleeding.

“In the next few days the media will continue to focus on the thus far poorly executed withdrawal of Afghans to see how many can be saved and safely evacuated. If this story continues with the same intensity it has received in the past 72 hours, it could damage Mr Biden’s presidency. So far, that is not the case.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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